The Puritan Way of Death

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

For decades, students of the American culture have discussed the tensions which always have existed in the ever-expanding American society—the polar extremes of freedom and law, nature and civilization, and society and individual, to list only a few. When Frederick Jackson Turner announced his famous “frontier thesis” in 1893, many persons agreed with his basic assumption that when the frontier closed, a major safety valve was removed. Whether one accepts Turner’s view or the views of dozens of later revisionists, one must admit the value of the study and of its usefulness in attempting to deal with the concept of cultural tensions.

Although David E. Stannard’s A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change covers only the first one hundred fifty or so years of the American colonies and discusses only a few thousand persons—the New England Puritans—his conclusions have the potential for being as exciting as Turner’s, for he supports Leon Festinger’s theory of “cultural dissonance,” which is another way of describing the operant societal tensions. Perhaps the Puritans’ stress, a dichotomous uneasiness between death as an abstract concept and dying as a practical fact, and the ways they found for dealing with the stress, may be the genesis of later compromises and changes effected by the American culture to ease or to dissipate its tensions.

The Puritans attempted to deal with the stress on the basis of theology. Death was a punishment, part of the price all humanity must pay for the one big error committed by Adam and Eve; as the New England Primer stated it: “In Adam’s fall/ We sinned all.” The Puritans accepted many of Calvin’s doctrines, and for the Calvinist, death should bring heavenly rewards for the righteous spirits, for the “elect.” In addition, the Puritans could not accept St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory of the reuniting of the soul and the body at the time of the Second Coming; for the Puritan, the promised return of Christ to earth would be the signal for the beginning of the millennium, the reign of peace and happiness for the Chosen.

It would seem, then, that the Puritan should have been happy to die, to leave an earthly existence which was full of sin and sorrow, disease and distress. However, until almost the end of the reign of the Puritan community, about the middle of the eighteenth century, dying was a fearful thing because even the most holy, the most pious believer could not be assured he was saved; he might only have deceived himself into thinking he was among the elect. Thus, dying itself was a thing to be feared.

When George Whitefield, the English evangelist, came to the colonies about 1740, the Great Awakening, that sometimes violent, always emotional tide of revivalism, spread through New England and other northern colonies. Jonathan Edwards, one of the last great Puritan ministers, could—and did—cause great fear in his congregation with his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. Edwards wanted to shock his listeners, to awaken them from the complacency into which they had drifted. He wanted to remind them that death was a time of potential punishment, a time for a vengeful God to judge the slackers who had not achieved salvation. He wanted to remind his congregation that there was no middle ground, no purgatory for them; there was either a vividly described, never-ending torment in Hell or a happy eternity in Heaven. Contemporary witnesses tell us Edwards achieved his purpose, for the audience that day began to moan and groan and shriek.

As current American history and literature textbooks indicate, the moral fires of the Great Awakening soon died away. But what the textbooks generally do not tell us about the Puritan era is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Stannard’s slender volume, the material in his third chapter, “Death and Childhood.”

The author points out that the average Puritan couple conceived nine children, but two or three of them could be expected to die before the age of ten. Stannard disputes the theory of some historians that Puritan parents did not love their children—he...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Christian Century. XCIV, November 2, 1977, p. 1012.

Library Journal. CII, June 1, 1977, p. 1297.

New York Times Book Review. October 9, 1977, p. 12.

New Yorker. LIII, November 28, 1977, p. 194.